Fashion designer Raakesh Agarvwal breaks silence on years of facing sexual abuse, and what it means to survive.
A 2007 report on child abuse by the ministry of women and child development, conducted across 13 states, revealed that out of 12,447 child respondents, about 53.22 per cent had faced sexual abuse. Out of these, 52.94 per cent were boys and 47.06 per cent girls. The study found that among the severe forms of sexual abuse that the children faced – including assault, being forced to fondle private parts, exhibit their own, and being photographed in the nude – the percentage of male victims was 57.3 per cent and about 42.7 per cent girls, with a clear margin of 15 per cent tilted towards the boys.
This might help explain why the incredible degree of child sex abuse against girls, in India, occurs and seems impervious to attempts to reduce it. Sexually abused boys frequently become sexual abusers, while sexually abused girls tend more to abuse themselves. But almost inevitably, abuse begets abuse.
Why do we pretend sexual abuse is something that affects mostly girls and not our boys? Why do we think the "masculinity" of boys, their sexual and psychological well-being, cannot be shattered? Why do we not pay attention to cases of boys being molested, or of families turning a blind eye to such ordeals? Why do we assume that just because a man cannot get pregnant, he’s not in any danger of getting hurt sexually?
|Raakesh Agarvwal - Blenders Pride Fashion Tour|
"I was raped when I was three-to-four-year-old"
I grew up in Adilabad, a small village in Andhra Pradesh, known for being the biggest cotton trading district in Asia. I hailed from a typical Marwari business family where boys aren’t educated much, as they're expected to one day sit on the gadda and manage the family business.
My parents were obsessed with my oldest sister, born to my mother after seven miscarriages. My father’s family, I'm told, had even pressurised him to marry another woman who could bear him a child. My father was perhaps well-known in the area for being a progressive and principled man. He, too, like my grandparents, doted on my sister. I was grossly neglected – always eager to prove myself, hungry for being loved back. To somehow win back some sort of preference in the family.
My childhood was one of being trapped under constant, deep loneliness. Be it at our factory or at home, I was always alone, left to myself. In my village, where there were barely any streetlights, where mostly bullock carts plied on the roads, where women were mostly homebound, hidden away from outside world, I guess I didn’t really know how to respond to a gross offender, how to react to a sexual predator, how to distinguish a man who was being affectionate from someone who was being downright offensive.
When I was three or four, I was groped and manhandled by a close relative. My mother seemed to be completely unaware that the man she would occasionally ask to bathe me would regularly hurt me and force me to take his member in my mouth. And what does a child even know about all this stuff?
We were a large joint family. Sometimes a relative or someone’s son, who stayed with us, would force me into doing things. Nasty things. Our factory manager, Pasha, too, would take his chances. Violations never stopped. Only a child, I could neither process nor understand the pain, the hurt, the fear...
"No one taught us about sex in school"
I studied in St Joseph’s Convent High School. Till Class 10, I would practically top every exam. I scored 97.8 per cent in my SSC. And then, slowly, I started to slip.
The violence got to me. My raging obsession to be accepted within my own family, along with the constant pressure to be number one all the time, was my ultimate undoing. Also, there was no concept of sex education in school. My relative, who remained for long one of my biggest sexual assaulters, would continue to prey on me. I was petrified of returning home. Sometimes, he’d smuggle in his friends and they would beat me so much, I’d become unconscious, after which they would take turns to rape me.
Everywhere I went this man would follow me. Once at a family funeral, when I had to wear my father’s dhoti, I recall how he groped me. My studies were affected. I bunked school. I scored a dismal 64 per cent in my ten plus two. My sister was sent to an engineering college.
I was close to committing suicide.
"I ran away at 16, topped the All India NIFT entrance exam. It felt like a new life"
I had absolutely no clue about sketching or fashion. National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi, with just 30 of us, was like a breath of fresh air. There I began getting comfortable with my own sexuality, even dating women. Away from the dark nights at home and the breath of a man constantly over my neck, NIFT was a safe refuge. Here I would see boys kiss boys, girls make out with girls, naked models, the inside of fitting and stage trials, even women smoking openly. There was an air of sexual openness which began to slowly wean me out of my culturally cloistered sexual past. Despite making some of my closest friends here, I remained silent about my gory past. May be I was ashamed or may be I hadn’t figured out my sexual identity fully. Or may be, I was still too raw inside to come up with my own language for the violence I faced early in my life.
I joined Tarun Tahiliani as an assistant to his senior designer, Gautam Rakha. In less than five years, my salary shot up to five lakhs a month. I was suddenly living the high life. I was high – drugs, rave parties, free entry to posh Delhi clubs, air kisses, celebs and one night stands – I had it all. I was labeled the enfant terrible of Indian fashion by Grazia. I did coke and ecstasy and turned down many a sexual proposal. What I respected about the fashion industry was that no one would try and use force.
"In 2009, I began my own label. I was the new star in the fashion sky. And, yet my sister made fun of me saying I stitched women’s petticoats and placed buttons on lehengas. No better than a darzi. There was no respect".
My family neither had a clue about my life as an upcoming fashion designer nor feigned an interest. We never talked about our childhood, what happened back in that house. In fact, just a month and a half ago, I came clean to my sister and wrote her a nasty mail. She elicited no reaction. The man who would assault me sexually was till 2009 trying to fix my marriage. I got out of that manipulation, but I am still scared to fall in love. I feel I can’t sexually gratify my partner. In fact, the only time I have good sex is when I’m on alcohol or coke. I’ve dabbled in bisexuality, made love to both men and women. Relationships, however, scare me.
I was diagnosed with pancreatitis in 2012. I disappeared from the fashion scene completely. Focusing on my health instead. I weighed 97 kgs then and my waist size was 48. Lot of people thought I had AIDS. There were rumours that I was dying. The fashion world perhaps had always regarded me as a bit of a misfit. There are no friends here.
I learnt swimming, was on a Shikha Sharma diet, started lessons in contemporary dance. I decided to be myself. I was focused on selling my label, not being seen as the face of it. I worked on my inner self, stopped lying to clients or tried to rise above the competition. I stopped shouting, like my father who threw things at people in a fit of rage.
Today, I’m a semi alcoholic. I want to learn how to fly planes now.
"Listen to your boys"
The pain and torture of my childhood will not go away so quickly. It’s a hurt I still carry. But I want to use my experience to raise awareness about sexual abuse of boys.
I am associated with Paint Our World. For the longest time, I have been contemplating a show with survivors of abuse – especially, the boy child. But it’s hard to get sponsors as the fashion industry mainly relies on celebs and glamour.
I know I am still messed up. I was suicidal till I was 33. In fact, my sister jokes that when she sees my calls, her first response is always one of fear – whether I have slit my wrists or tried to hang myself from somewhere.
I am trying to translate the gruesome sexual abuse I faced into a positive learning curve. I know I was born to be a star. All I have to say to parents and families – please, just listen to your boys. Don’t leave a young boy unguarded. Don’t assume his sex will save him.